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    • A graphic of Biden’s Cabinet as of January 8, 2021.

Diversity and Climate: Community Reacts to Cabinet Picks

Zoe Sommer ’23 Campus Correspondent
On January 20, 2021, at 12:00 pm, Joseph R. Biden was sworn into office, becoming the forty-sixth President of the United States.
President Biden enters the Office of the President along with Kamala Harris; the first woman, African American, and South Asian Vice President. His cabinet will be one of the most diverse cabinets in American history, including a majority of Black, Indigenous, People of Color, and will be almost equally composed of men and women. President Biden also enters office during a time of great political and social divide, a global pandemic, dire climate issues, high unemployment rates, and an economic crisis.

In order to pass Biden’s proposed legislation targeting all five issues, cooperation with Republican members of Congress is needed. According to 21st Century Democracy teacher and School Archivist Thom Peters, “much hinges... on how the Republican Party shakes down after Mr. Trump leaves office.” Peters says that “Mr. Biden will have to grapple with the fact that the way he was able to be a successful Senator, through friendships and exchanges, has not been the model used in the Senate in recent years.” However, Peters notes that while “only 1⁄3 of the current Senate was there when Biden was there... many of them are now among the leadership of the Senate so that works in his favor.” For example, President Biden has a history of a positive relationship with Republican Mitch Mcconnell, the Senate Minority Leader. This connection feels potentially problematic for the power demographic in the cabinet to many, including co-head of Young Democrats Ella Zuse ’22. She believes there “already are some tensions present in the Senate as McConnell is looking to hold on to some of his power.”

While Biden calls for unification and cooperation, co-head of Young Democrats Nathan Meyers ’22 predicts that Biden will face difficulties cooperating with Republican members of Congress when “passing legislation that addresses problems Republicans don’t believe in, like systemic racism and [access to] abortion[s].” Meyers also states that other issues, such as the amount of money in the Covid relief bill, “could be debated” but “will get passed eventually.”

Co-head of Young Republicans John Stanley ’22 shares his hopes for the new administration: “Above everything, I think solving the problem of Covid-19 has to be the biggest focus of the President.” Stanley continues, “We’ve heard a lot from him criticizing Trump’s decisions on the virus, and I’m hoping that Biden will do as good of a job that he’s advertised.”

Biden’s cabinet nominees are the most diverse in American history. For example, Biden nominated Representative Deb Haaland (D-N.M.), an enrolled member of the Laguna Pueblo, for Interior Secretary. Environmental Science teacher Allison Mordas explains that “the Department includes all National Parks, as well as Bureau of Land Management lands (which are extensive and mostly rangelands), the United States Geological Survey, and the Bureau of Indian Affairs.” Mordas is “hopeful that she will lead our public lands in a positive direction.” The cabinet is also the first-ever to be evenly composed of men and women. Additionally, the President’s top picks include the Cabinet’s first openly gay cabinet member, Pete Buttigieg; African American Defense Secretary, Lloyd Austin; and woman Secretary of the Treasury, Janet Yellen. Meyers is particularly excited for Buttigieg’s position as Transportation Secretary as “it’s great that a millennial is going to be in the President’s cabinet because we need younger voices in politics.” He believes that “Improvements to the transportation sector are shown to be among the best ways to combat climate change, and the US falls behind other nations in creating modern transportation networks, such as high-speed rail and light-rail networks.”

Under former President Donald Trump’s administration, more than 100 environmental rules were rolled back, according to The New York Times. When asked about the largest problem facing our planet today, Mordas refers to climate change as “the largest in scale and [one] [that] will certainly impact all aspects of our lives, particularly if governments continue to ignore or minimize it.” Mordas believes that the environmental threats to our daily lives stem from the “indirect effects of climate change.” She says that the indirect effects of climate change are caused when “climate change affects one thing, and that thing then affects us. Indirect impacts are notoriously difficult to legislate against and manage, particularly when so many government officials lack the political will.”

Government inaction to address other environmental issues also poses a significant threat. According to Mordas, “The laws governing the controls on [environmental] hazards to human health are older than me... and I’m old. They are outdated and haven’t been significantly updated since I was in high school.” For example, “water pollution controls don’t effectively measure and limit things that we know represent serious threats to human health, such as PFOAs and endocrine disruptors.” Environmental threats also disproportionately affects poor, minority communities. Mordas says that “if you are poor, or a POC [Person of Color], you’re much more likely to live near heavy sources of air and water pollution, incinerators, and landfills... There has been evidence for at least a generation that these communities are experiencing the negative health impacts of these exposures, such as higher than average asthma rates, and yet nothing has been done to remedy this. Our laws need updating, and they need to be addressed in a much more equitable way.”

On his website, Biden states that he hopes the U.S. can achieve a 100% clean-energy economy and net-zero emissions by 2050. Meyers believes that “Biden needs to pass... sweeping legislation that helps combat climate change, both in terms of trying to limit carbon emissions, and create long-term solutions to climate change, like investing heavily in renewable energy to move the U.S. away from fossil fuels and natural gas.”

Biden’s current plan also involves establishing an Environmental and Climate Justice Division within the U.S. Department of Justice. Mordas is unsure about this aspect of Biden’s plan, since “it’s hard to say how that could be used to protect citizens from the impacts of climate change, but I’ll take all the help we can get.” Mordas elaborates, “most of the time the problem is that our laws haven’t kept up with scientific knowledge. We have also written most environmental laws in a way that places an extreme burden on the prosecutor. In most pollution cases, environmental lawyers cannot bring a suit without a whistleblower providing documentation that the company knew of potential hazards and exposed workers and communities anyway. Repairing these issues and giving the Environmental Protection Agency a more significant role, which is less easily impacted by executive order, should be the highest priority.”
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